Why Can’t Britain Do The Daily Show?

I wasn’t in to see 10 O’Clock Live on Thursday, so I’m a bit late in reacting to it, and it’s probably not fair to judge it on the very first episode. But when has that ever stopped anyone?

Well it certainly wasn’t terrible, I guess. I should probably preface this review by saying that I would dearly love the UK to have an answer to The Daily Show in the US, which I think is brilliant. I would be quite happy to see some brave network simply import the format wholesale, so long as they did it right. I accept that not everyone wants to spend their career simply trying to make a carbon copy of someone else’s success, though, so I’m not going to insist that 10 O’Clock Live be that show. It clearly is trying to be something a bit like it, though, and for that I have both a lot of goodwill towards it, and a lot of points where I really wanted it to be better. I will identify some of the areas I think it needs to work on to take on the best aspects of the Daily Show.

Some people, like Mark Lawson, thought it was an issue that the programme had a pretty consistent liberal leaning to it, but I’m not sure that’s such a problem. For one thing, I actually thought David Willetts did pretty well on the tuition fees interview, in what could have been a very hostile environment (how many politicians would relish being interviewed in front of a rowdy studio audience by a well-liked comic?).

In any case, Conservative-leaning satire has always been rather unloveable, largely because it tends to revolve around mocking the weak and the vulnerable. As many people pointed out, the Daily Show has a similarly liberal slant to it, and the Colbert Report, ostensibly a kind of Republican balance to the Daily Show’s leftish sensibility, doesn’t really balance the situation out because it revolves around a bloviating Glenn Beck-alike character as a presenter, which is clearly intended to be appreciated on an ironic level. But I digress.

Most of the British attempts to Do Something A Bit Like The Daily Show have run into a couple of depressingly familiar stumbling blocks. And by the way, there have now been a number of attempts to get a topical, satirical, spoof-news ‘n’ interviews format like this going – see also the laudable The Late Edition (a BBC4 Marcus Brigstocke-led effort), and Channel 4’s previous effort, the abysmal Tonightly and its successor The TNT Show.

Problem 1: They have tended to talk down to the audience. Much has been made of the fact that in the US, viewers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report have been found to be better informed about current affairs than people who primarily get their news from more conventional sources, like the mainstream network news channels. Of course, correlation is not causation, and it might be because the Daily Show has a high student audience, for instance.

It’s probably not just that, though. Often you will see more coverage of what is said in Congress on the Daily Show than you do on other news reports – admittedly cherry picked for stuff which is easily mocked, but still. Interviews with academics and people who have written interesting, and not at all mainstream, books, are also a regular fixture, although admittedly they vie for time against interviews with film stars about their latest movie. The jokes on the Daily Show don’t sound like someone is trying to make a dry subject palateable to an audience which is otherwise too lumpen and incurious to care; the best of the Daily Show assumes that you already do know and understand something about the issue it is addressing, even when discussing geopolitics with former presidents.

Compare and contrast this approach with both Jimmy Carr’s bit on Tunisia-as-holiday-destination, and Lauren Laverne’s sleb-news spoof about Sudan’s vote for independence. 10 O’Clock Live does not come out of this comparison at all well, given that we are a country which would like to imagine it is culturally more sophisticated. I mean, come on, 10 O’Clock Live even opened with a kind of mission statement that they were here to explain the complicated world to us poor, addled simpletons.

Of course, 10 O’Clock Live has a challenge, in that Britain has news programmes from the BBC and Channel 4, whereas the US… doesn’t. That shouldn’t stop them from aspiring to hold that same position, though. Programmes like this don’t really work when they try for a mass audience. They work best when they appeal directly to an audience who are educated, interested, and don’t want to feel like they are being edutained at a level which is one or two levels down from anything they might actually find in the least bit informative.

Problem 2: Often, British shows try to start off being weekly, which just doesn’t really work very well. I think to really establish itself, a network just has to have the balls to really commit, and go straight for a nightly show. Tonightly at least got this bit right – its problem was simply that it suffered horrendously from Problem 1. Anything which wants to be The British Daily Show just has to go big or go home. It needs a big, intelligent writing team, and it needs to churn out good content on a daily basis, like the Daily Show somehow manages to.

In addition to these common problems, 10 O’Clock Live seems to have given itself a bit of a problem of its own. Its mutli-star format seems like a bit of an encumberance, at least in the way they have construed it. If I was to cast a British Daily Show, I can’t think of many people better suited to be Jon Stewart than David Mitchell. Charlie Brooker would certainly feature as a regular correspondant. But I’m not so sure about Jimmy Carr, although he certainly wasn’t a disaster. Lauren Laverne isn’t known as a comic, and felt rather as though she’d been chucked in for gender balance (which is a fair point, but surely the answer is to use one of the many good female comics who’d do well on a show like this) and to play the straight-woman to the other three, which seems a rather thankless task.

I wasn’t sure about their semi-funny, semi-earnest discussions around the table, either. These seemed a bit… neither nowt nor summat.

But still, it’s early days. With a bit of luck some of these crinkles will be ironed out in time. And of course, much of the charm of the Daily Show is in the way it has established long-running characters and features, and found its voice over many years. It wouldn’t quite be fair to expect this of 10 O’Clock Live straight away, when they haven’t had time to establish themselves.

So, my prescription:

1. Nightly, not weekly.
2. Talk up to the audience.
3. Cut down on the number of “hosts”, and redeploy some of them as more confined contributors – Charlie Brooker, much as I love him, is much better scripted than off the cuff, IMO.
4. Bring in more contributors, too. Why not show off some of the great, intelligent comics Britain has? MacIntyre types have plenty of formats that serve them well, but what about the less observational, more thoughtful ones? I would have thought this would be right up any number of people’s streets.

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2 Responses to “Why Can’t Britain Do The Daily Show?”

  1. Simon G Says:

    I agree with most of what you say. David Mitchell was easily the best of the four with Charlie Brooker second.

    It does need to be on at least two or three times a week. A weekly programme will miss out on stories such as Coulson’s resignation and Blair’s Iraq evidence. Obviously that’s a tougher task for the writers but your suggestion of a slot for lesser-known comics would help to address that. Also, a more frequent programme wouldn’t necessarily need to have such a long slot.

    • Andy Says:

      Now you say it I think I probably agree, two or three times a week might be a good interim step.


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